Where: Ayutthaya, Thailand. Ayutthaya is about an hour and a half north of Bangkok.
When: February 2009
Why: I visited Ayutthaya as a day trip from Bangkok, on my first visit to Bangkok in 2009.
Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand from thirteen something to seventeen something. Ayutthaya was a great power. It was the Ayutthayians who destroyed the city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Today, the Ayutthaya Historical Park consists of the ruins of many temples, palaces and monasteries. The site looks like it has always been in ruins. You can’t imagine that this was once a bustling, busy city of 1 million inhabitants. I found picturing the city as it would have been virtually impossible. Apparently, in the olden days Ayutthaya even had a British embassy.
When I visited, the whole site was pretty open and I paid to get into individual sections. I seem to remember it was 50 bht per area (£1). All the remaining complexes are very interesting, but the site is so large that it is hard to visit all of the areas and after a while the ruins do start to blend together a little. I spent half a day at Ayutthaya and that was enough for me. I made the mistake of visiting just after lunch, at the hottest part of the day. There was very little shade and it was hot and very humid.
A visit to Ayutthaya makes a good day trip from Bangkok as you can get there easily by bus or train and have a good few hours to explore the city. Visiting Ayutthaya is a nice way to escape the modern city and to see a little more of rural Thailand.
This page was first written after I visited the ruins in 2009. After that, Ayutthaya was very badly flooded in 2011 and then again in 2013, so there may be more damage to the site than when I was there.
From what I understand, UNESCO are trying to help restore the city and the people of Ayutthaya are looking at ways that they can restore the old water systems, which used to help control the water and flooding in ancient times. So fingers crossed, you can enjoy this ancient city as I did.
I didn’t have enough time in Ayutthaya and as with every place I visited in Thailand, I would love to return and explore further.
Getting there and getting around
To get to Ayutthaya I took the local train from Hualamphong Station (Bangkok’s main station). A third class fare was 40 bht (about 80p) and the journey took about an hour and a half. I bought my ticket on the morning of my journey at the station.
The train was basic but fine and it was nice to be travelling with commuting Thais. Taking the train was a great way to see more of Bangkok and Thailand, and it was lovely to rush through the countryside with the wind in my hair.
Visit the State Railways of Thailand (SRT) website for train times and fares in English. For more info about travelling by train in Thailand visit The Man in Seat 61 website.
When I arrived at Ayutthaya I went down the small road directly opposite the station, and then took the small ferry over the canal which surrounds the city. I then walked to the ruins which are located on the opposite side of the modern town. I think walking may have been a mistake as it was just a little bit too far to walk from the station, many of the roads didn’t have pavements and it was very, very hot.
You can hire bikes from a shop just by the ferry stop and if I was a bit more confident I think I would have hired a bike as the ancient city is quite spread out, but on flat land and on quiet roads, and cycling would be a nice and easy way to tour the ancient city .
I think the best way to get around though is by tuk tuk, which are a lot of fun and naturally air conditioned. Or, you can travel by elephant but they are a bit slow (and I’ve also heard that it hurts the elephant if you ride on them on a seat, which isn’t nice).
You can also get to Ayutthaya on a tourist boat trip, though apparently these do take a long time and I have read that the boat doesn’t go the full way anyhow. Most of the day trips I’ve seen advertised take a coach one way and the boat trip the other. The Telegraph has a good article about travelling to Ayutthaya on an overnight boat trip.
Another option is to catch a bus from Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus station, which is to the north of the city. I travelled from Mo Chit when I caught the bus to Siem Reap in Cambodia. It’s in the northern suburbs and a taxi there from the centre cost me 250bht (about £5). There’s detailed information about this on Ayutthaya Wikitravel page. Apparently buses leave every 20 minutes.
What I did on my day trip
Truthfully, the reason I visited Ayutthaya was mostly because of the famous historian Dan Cruikshank’s TV series and book: ‘Around the World in 80 Treasures’; because one of his treasures is in the museum in Ayutthaya, and I wanted to be able to see it and to say ‘been there, done that’.
The Golden Elephant was found in the main prang at Wat Ratchaburana (the prang is the phallic looking building found across South East Asia). The Golden Elephant was made by a king in fourteen something to celebrate getting the throne after his two brothers killed each other in a fight on elephants (how did they reach?). Wat Ratchaburana sits on the site of his brothers’ cremation.
The Golden Elephant, along with loads of other treasure that this King nicked or had made, was buried in the central prang in Wat Ratchaburana. In the 1950s the prang was robbed and the treasure stolen, but some of the treasure was recovered, including the Golden Elephant. (Incidentally, I can’t help wondering what treasure wasn’t recovered and what happened to it – this could be another episode of my Hidden Treasures TV programme).
Wat Ratchaburana today is mostly brick ruins, but the prang remains and you can go inside – you can even climb down into the treasure chamber, although I was a bit too scared to do this as it was really steep. You get great views over Ayutthaya from the steps up to the prang – and this is a great way to get a perspective on how large the city was.
In Wat Ratchaburana there are many ruins that you can walk around and climb through; though it is very hard to picture these ruins as real buildings that people lived and worked in.
All around the complex (in fact all around Ayutthaya) there were many decapitated Buddha statues. Although there were some funny signs telling you not to put the Buddhas back together, there were some very funny reconstructions.
I could have hired a guide for a small price at the site but I chose to just use the guide book and to take the visit at my own pace.
Wat Mahathat contains one of the most famous Buddha statues in the world, as this is the location of the Buddha head, which has been encased by the roots of a boddhi tree (see photo at the top of the page).
I’d seen many pictures of the Buddha’s head, but the photos have always been in close up and so I didn’t realise how big he is.
Very sadly, at the back of the tree there are lots of small dolls, which apparently are offerings for lost children.
The Buddha head in the tree is not the only Buddha statue in Wat Mahathat. Unlike the other temple complexes where the Buddha statues had been decapitated by the bloody Burmese, the Buddha statues in Wat Mahathat had been left alone. When I was there, these were dressed in bright orange robes. These statues were still being venerated, with people prostrating themselves to the statues and leaving offerings of flowers and incense. I liked that. I liked seeing the devotion taking place in the ruins.
The rest of the Wat Mahathat complex is similar to Wat Ratchaburana in that it is a series of crumbling brick structures. Some look as if they could fall down at any minute. Apparently it’s a race against time to preserve these buildings and there are loads of them that are falling apart.
Wat Mahathat is again quite a large site with not much shade. There are a few stalls outside selling drinks and postcards, and some OK public toilets just outside the gates.
Phra Ram Park
Phra Ram Park sits in the middle of the ancient city. It is a very tranquil space in the centre of the city and a good place to get some perspective over the whole site. Apart from that though, there’s not much here.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Wat Phra Si Sanphet has apparently been featured on many television programmes and on promotional posters for Thailand. It has three very pretty, almost complete stupas.
I didn’t actually go to Wat Phra Si Sanphet, but I did go near it before I gave in in defeat to the heat and because I got distracted by…
Elephant vs Tuk Tuk
I had a race with an elephant in a tuk tuk. (I was in the tuk tuk – the elephant wasn’t). I won.
Truthfully, I was in a tuk tuk and we just overtook a lot of elephants. It was an elephant jam, but we weren’t on a trunk road and there were no zebra crossings. I’m sure there’s some more puns in there somewhere but I can’t think of them just now (suggestions on a post card please).
The elephants that I saw were basically taking people on a walk around Ayutthaya, though I’m not sure how much the trek cost or how long it lasts.
At the time I thought it looked fun, but I’ve since read a report that says these type of seats can hurt elephants, as their spine isn’t very strong. Apparently most of their strength is in their necks not their backs.
If you want to go visit some elephants and help with elephant conservation, then you can visit Elephant Stay where you can get up close to these wonderful creatures and find out how you can help them. Elephant Stay is located at the Royal Elephant Kraal and Village in Ayutthaya. www.elephantstay.com.
Visited the Golden Elephant in the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum
As I said before, the predominant reason I went to Ayutthaya was to see Dan Cruickshank’s treasure: the Golden Elephant. This is now kept in the wonderfully, cool, air-conditioned museum in the centre of the ancient city.
And to be honest, I’m not sure why the Golden Elephant is one of his 80 treasures as it is tiny! Yes, it is very, very beautiful, but also rather small. I’m afraid I was more excited by the real elephants.
However, the museum was still well worth a visit as it contains many more interesting relics from the ruined city and it was a wonderful respite from the heat and the dust of the main site.
Entrance was 150 bht (£3). The museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday.
You can find out more information about the museum and its exhibits at the Ayutthaya History website.
Saw a spontaneous freeze
I arrived back in Bangkok just before 6 p.m., which allowed me to witness the daily spontaneous freeze. Every day, as the national anthem plays at 6p.m., everyone stops what they are doing and just stands still. And sods law, at that point my camera stopped working so I can’t show you what it looked like – but believe me it was very strange.
Ayutthaya Boat are a cool company I’ve found whilst researching this page, who look as if they offer interesting trips around Ayutthaya: www.ayutthaya-boat.com.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you spot anything which you think is wrong or needs updating, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.